Choose one: 24 steak dinners or a set of textbooks


The new year has begun in earnest for college students. Classes are underway, and spirits are high. Or at least mine were, until one of my professors started brainstorming ways to one-up another professor in the level of difficulty of his class. In the middle of the first day of class, no less. With the new school year comes another bane of college students’ existence: textbooks.

Everyone knows textbook prices are ridiculous. But just how ridiculous? Allow this graph from a University of Michigan professor to put things into context.

screen shot 2014-04-24 at 2.19.49 pm

The rate of inflation for college textbooks specifically is a little under 4x the general rate of inflation. No, that’s not a misprint.

Now, yes, there are options to lower the costs, like buying online, buying used, renting, or finding e-books. But let’s play a fun game here. College Board estimates that the average student spends $1,200 a year on books and supplies. So what else can we buy for that much dough or less?

-1 13-inch MacBook Air (without student discounts)

-1 LG refrigerator

-1 round trip pair of airplane tickets to India

-2 50-inch Vizio LED Smart TVs

-4 32 GB iPhone 5s

-24 formal steak dinners

That’s a ridiculous amount of money to shell out on textbooks. It’s hard to reconcile that I can fly 8,400 miles and back, for the same cost as one year’s set of textbooks. Just because education is priceless doesn’t mean you get to price people out of it.

But wait. Publishers claim that the books cost so much money because of the labor required to produce the content, a multi-year cycle. Then why do they publish new editions every 4 years, on average, when many college deans, administrative staff, and faculty, admit that the changes are often minimal? I can tell you that I’ve seen multiple editions of calculus textbooks that don’t contain any changes other than different numbers for the problems at the end of each chapter.

Thankfully, the Internet is starting to help mitigate some of the problem. The open web has allowed us greater access to open resources and digital alternatives. It is in this vein that I am about to deify one of my professors this semester. He wrote the textbook for the class, and then made it available for free online. Don Johnson, you the real MVP.


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